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Exploring the obesogenic environment: understanding the health impact of contemporary living.

Sibson, Rachael Hancock


Rachael Hancock Sibson


Chris Yuill

Arthur Stewart

Iain Broom


Obesity exists in the complexity of everyday life and arises from individuals' interactions with the obesogenic environment, different behaviours/dispositions and biological factors. In order to develop better intervention strategies to attenuate obesity prevalence, this research applied an ontological approach to investigating some of the factors and/or underlying preconditions for obesity to occur. Previous research has taken an epistemological approach to the study of obesity and used siloed approaches, which may have assumed knowing what the cause of obesity was, or that its findings were the cause(s) for obesity. In contrast, an ontological approach asks the question of 'what the world or reality must be like for obesity to occur'. Therefore, the aim of this study was to explore the multiple, interrelated processes with respect to individuals' behaviour, attitudes and dispositions towards food, self and life. Due to the fact that obesity arises from complex origins, the study required a methodology that would account for complexity. Critical realism (CR) was used to explore causal or generative mechanisms (i.e. multiple and interrelated factors) that may be involved and/or contribute to obesity. A mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods - in the form of semi-structured interviews (SSi) and validated questionnaires - were used to explore how different individuals of various body weights relate to food, self-perceived body image and self-esteem/confidence and orientation to life. CR's modes of inference - namely abduction and retroduction - were then applied in order to understand the underlying preconditions of what reality must be like for obesity to occur. The research additionally attempted to identify demi-regularities (i.e. semi-predictable patterns) among individuals' behaviours/attitudes and/or dispositions towards food, self and life, and also to identify transfactual (i.e. necessary) conditions for obesity to be what it is. The findings from the first part of this study, carried out on a convenience sample of participants, served as a framework for the second part, which focused on individuals 20-40 years old. In the second study, full body scans, anthropometric measurements, body-fat percent and blood samples were collected in order to support theoretical suppositions and the findings from the first study's SSi and questionnaires. The findings from the combined studies showed that individuals with an overall negative embodied disposition towards food (i.e. believing that food is unimportant) experienced the following (instrumental profile): a dissonant relationship with food (i.e. more food-dependent because of stress and/or negative emotions); a more negative sense of self-perception in terms of body image and self-esteem or confidence; a lower salutogenic outlook; lower physical and mental wellbeing, including a higher body-fat percentage and higher levels of proinflammatory biomarkers. In contrast, the studies also showed that individuals with an overall positive embodied disposition towards food (i.e. believing that food is important) experienced the following (aesthetic and, to some extent, disciplined profile): a less dissonant (or entirely non-dissonant) relationship with food; stronger salutogenesis; higher physical and mental wellbeing, including a lower body-fat percentage and lower levels of proinflammatory biomarkers. This study gives insights into how human behaviour and disposition - towards food, self and life - links to overall wellbeing, body-fat and bio-chemical profile. The findings have provided a new way of understanding and thinking about the complexity of obesity, and laid a new path or framework for carrying out further research and studying obesity. Moreover, this research has suggested that intervention strategies must employ a multi-dimensional approach in order to attenuate obesity prevalence, crossing different disciplines - from the natural to the psycho-social sciences. These intervention strategies must also consider a more targeted approach (stratified interventions) for individuals in function of their embodied dispositions: instrumental, discipline or aesthetic.


SIBSON, R.H. 2019. Exploring the obesogenic environment: understanding the health impact of contemporary living. Robert Gordon University [online], PhD thesis. Available from:

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Jan 28, 2020
Publicly Available Date Jan 28, 2020
Keywords Obesity; Eating habits; Dietary behaviour; Self-image; Critical realism
Public URL


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